One of the most popular annual declarations is to implement a healthier lifestyle, particularly by reaching or maintaining a healthier weight. Achieving that goal usually requires increased exercise and improved eating habits. But potholes lurk on the road to success, and some are more hidden than others.
One is air pollution. Science has established a strong link between air pollution and obesity. Breathing unhealthy air can interfere with weight loss or actively promote weight gain.
Air pollution affects exercise
The most obvious impact of air pollution on a healthy lifestyle is on exercise, and lack thereof, due to the negative consequences that pollutants can have on a body.
Air pollution can cause a number of short-term problems when exercising including
- interference with oxygenation
- shortness of breath
- sore throat
Symptoms can be intensified by exercise, as the normal, adult respiratory rate of 12-20 breaths per minute1 could raise to as high as 40-60 breaths per minute.2 So in areas with high levels of pollution, it is not surprising that residents might lead more sedentary lifestyles.
Along with these temporary health irritants, long-term exposure to pollutants can lead to chronic cardiac and respiratory illnesses and premature death.
And it’s not just exercising outdoors that is of concern. Indoor air can be even more polluted than the air outside your home or workplace.3
Air pollution and obesity
Besides the harmful effects pollutants have on our heart and lungs, tiny airborne pollutants like PM2.5 (particulate matter measuring 2.5 microns or under in diameter) and even smaller ultrafine particles pose a serious threat to all parts of the body. Once inhaled, they can reach the bloodstream and from there negatively impact other organs such as those in the digestive system, which then can impede healthy eating habits.
A 2018 review article published in the International Journal of Obesity examined the relationship between air pollution and body weight status. Common air pollutants and environmental factors included in the reports were PM, NO2, SO2, ozone, and the overall air quality index. The studies discovered numerous correlations between air pollution and increased body weight.4
Another link to air pollution and weight gain was established through research due to the specifics that vitamin D deficiency in humans has been closely associated with obesity, and atmospheric pollutants have been associated with reducing our ability to synthesize this important nutrient from sunlight, the source for more than 90% of a body’s vitamin D.5
A 2014 study published in Environmental Health connected air pollution to internal inflammation that can disrupt the hormones and the part of your brain that governs appetite, which can lead to overeating.6
Air pollution effects on childhood weight
In 2020, international researchers found that being exposed as a child to various indoor pollutants such as particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide is linked to child obesity.7
The results of a study published in Pediatric Obesity in 2017 showed that in the first six months of their lives, babies living in heavily-polluted areas outpaced the weights of babies surrounded by cleaner air.8
Air pollution leading to obesity might even start in the womb. The atmospheric air quality that a group of women were individually exposed to while pregnant was monitored and measured, as were their resulting children during the first seven years of their lives. The kids born in areas with high levels of pollutants were nearly two and a half times likelier to be considered obese even taking into account other factors like diet and income.9
To help decrease your exposure to air pollutants, and reach your goal of a healthier lifestyle:
- monitor indoor and outdoor air quality
- if air quality is poor indoors, a high-efficiency air purifier might be necessary
- choose a gym that incorporates air cleaning technology
- limit all outdoor activities, not just exercise, when air quality is poor
- if outdoor activities are unavoidable on days with poor air quality, wear a high-quality mask